Dark Knight. Why so serious?

As announced by Aden Hepburn, here’s a very interesting documentary about the Cannes Grand Prix viral winner: a promotional campaign for the rollout of the Dark Knight movie which got 10 million people around the world involved in not just internet observation and virtual participation, but games, scavenger hunts, cell phone interchanges, and massive public demonstrations.

As a demonstration of the organizing power of a digital agency, it’s really, really impressive. As a display of human ingenuity and cooperation, it’s truly inspiring.

As an index of what kinds of activities are able to get 10 million people motivated enough to shout, cheer, travel, and work together … well, it’s a little scary.

“Why so serious?” you ask me?

Well, here’s the documentary… you decide.

It does prove that people love what 42 Entertainment calls “immersive”. They love to participate, solve mysteries, be surprised, be the first, make an impact, do stuff in groups.

Now, if we can only make water, energy, or the environment our great authentic, immersive quest! I was thinking more in terms of compost toilets to reduce water use, electric cars to reduce oil consumption … you know, stuff that really makes a difference in our lives and our world.

I don’t believe in Harvey Dent. And I’m still sad about the authentic story that played out as a backdrop to this imaginary promo escapade.

My stories 3: Fear the faux friend

One of my more humorous experiences with authenticity came when I was at the Disney studios in Burbank to interview Michael Eisner for Denison University. I had a couple of hours before the interview to kill so naturally I joined Michael’s entourage, as they ponderously moved from setup to setup to film “Voice of Disney” spots with Michael. It was a gorgeous sunny day but of course the 20-man crew wasn’t using sunlight; several grips held 60-foot rolls of silk overhead while giant HMI fresnels were focused on the subject. After several spots were in the can they began working on an intro for the movie Bambi. To introduce the film, the script called for a real Bambi (captive fawn), a real Thumper (bunny rabbit) and a real Flower (deflowered skunk). Eisner was to ask humans dressed up in the standard Disneyland Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy costumes who their favorite Bambi characters were. Mickey was to pet and say “Bambi!”, Minnie was to hold and say “Thumper!”, and Goofy was to hold and say “Flower!” … at which time everyone was to scatter at the sight of a skunk… with Michael delivering his final welcome line as he left the frame, leaving Goofy holding the skunk.

The rehearsals went fine, but when it was time to roll, the cartoon characters put on their heads, and then the fireworks began. Authentic Bambi took one look at Goofy, and went ballistic. I never imagined a juvenile deer could make a sound like that. We’re talking a high-pitched roar, half bellow and half shriek, while it kicked and butted and jumped like a wild horse at the rodeo. The trainer huddled with the assistant director, and produced a vial that I suppose was veterinary Vallium, from which he gave Bambi a shot in the hindquarters.

After a few minutes Bambi seemed calm … almost woozy it seemed to me. So the cameras got set, the grips at attention, the slate clapped … and again Goofy put on his head. This time Bambi went freakishly insane, screaming louder than before and opening up a 4-inch gash in the handler’s arm. The medical staff rushed over to administer first aid, and now the director and script supervisor huddled with Michael Eisner to find another approach. While Bambi was hustled away in what felt for all the world like a paddy wagon, the creative minds found a way to tell the story that did not require a live deer to coexist with Goofy.

For me, it was great fun. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the mediated part of media work. Here we have humans who can control all the elements: create their own sun, manufacture their own rain and wind. They might even be able to “guide” (?) the sensibilities of human beings. But they couldn’t overcome the hard-wired perceptions of a wild animal, no matter how many narcotics they used. The deer knew what it saw, and it knew to fear a plastic “friend” with a wolf’s jaw and two-inch teeth. The authentic nature of Goofy — his frightful appearance, not his hidden human motives — was the only visual language this natural critter understood.

And you know what? It seems to me that the more we learn about nature, and the more we get in touch with wildness in our world, the more we, too, might do well to fear our faux friends: the plastic face of progress; the factory farms, the poisoned yards, the symptom-masking meds and all the other mediated “realities” of our artificial environment. Like Goofy, they’re all scarier than they want us to think.

A tale of two road trips

Recently I watched two different road trip movies. Both were intended to combine action, humor, and romance. Both were done with sizable budgets and excellent actors. Both were written by respected, successful, scriptwriters. Both are meant to be fun, with lots of action, humor, and romance. Both are meant to celebrate music, and use long stretches of pop songs as almost another character in the story. Both enjoyed some critical acclaim, though I’ll never understand why movie B was as well received as it was.

Movie A is Bandits, directed by Barry Levinson.

Movie B is Elizabethtown, directed by Cameron Crowe.

Why is Bandits a blast, and Elizabethtown an eye-roller? Because the one director had an ear for authenticity, and the other didn’t.

Barry Levison and Cameron Crowe both have the credentials. They both can write, and they both can direct. Based on Levinson’s body of work, however, I’d have to say that Barry has a much better ear for authentic dialog. Case in point, the Stagecoach dialog scene in Avalon. (The movie is worth the rental just for that minute of dialog). He’s also a lot more disciplined as a director, with an eye for simplicity and elegance in the shooting. Case in point, the hospital scene when Aidan Quinn is walking with his son, and saying how strange it was to be a child… doors were too big, toilets were too big, and no one ever dies… So simple, and yet so full of dramatic tension and the wonder of childhood.

The big moment in Elizabethtown seems to be the pyrotechnics in the dance hall near the end. Never mind that they look cheesy. What’s amazing is the amount of screen time and the number of shots expended to introduce a plot device. Bandits has plot devices and pyrotechnics, too, but though they may be just as audacious and improbable, they work because they reveal more about the characters, and further the story in a way that feels authentic because it fits with what we have learned about the characters up till now. Besides, it’s downright fun. As I complete this reflection months after I began it, I can’t even remember what purpose the exploding chandelier had in the Elizabethtown story. I just know it was not fun. It took me out of the story (as did every musical interlude throughout the movie). As I watched it in slowmo from multiple angles, it struck me as gratuitous and contrived… as though the director said, “by golly, we paid for these special effects and we’re going to USE them!”

Rent both movies and watch them back to back. I suggest you watch Elizabethtown first…. so the evening ends on a happy note. And then write to tell me if you agree that Bandits, for all its hijinks and hyperbole, is still a story that feels authentic because of the characters that play out on the screen!

Inspiration – I

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.

They're not there

My hopes that I’m Not There would present insights into the thinking process of Millennials were somewhat disappointed when I saw who remained in the theater as the lights came up and the final Dylan songs carried right through to the last credits. Behind me, 4 bearded professorial types stretched and chuckled about the inside jokes of this 60’s counterculture mind dump. And beside me, a woman with long rebellious hair who I could easily imagine looking like Joan Baez 35 years ago sat, lost in thought and swaying to an obscure Dylan song while her husband muscled his way into a wheel chair and waited quietly for her to complete her revelry. To my right, my daughter and the only person in the theater with the right demographic, said simply, “I was lost. I only knew 3 Dylan songs.”

I’m Not There is as brilliant as they say. Certainly not satisfying as a character arc or even a plot piece… but as a fresh way of envisioning Dylan’s rich music, it was full of surprises, allegories, and ironic insights into our narcissistic pop culture. My favorite line was when Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the only Dylan alter ego in the movie that looked and sounded Dylanesque, retorted as s/he denied any profundity in the message: “I’m just a storyteller.”

If I could only be “just a storyteller”… oh, well.

As I reflect this morning on Todd Haynes’ movie about that era and its impact on the present, I see similar insights into the silliness of media and its replacement of reality for people. Like Blanchett’s Jude, who was taunted as Judas by her fans, I see the Millennial generation both embracing something new/better and rejecting something old/better. But unlike the various Dylan personalities, the Millennials I rear and work with seem much less impressed with themselves than Dylan was. It’s the self-consciousness without as much selfishness; it’s the narcissism without the mawkish self-love.

I doubt if I’m Not There will click with many Millennials. They’ll dig the visual style but they won’t relate to Dylan’s cynical drunkenness with his own mystique. For today’s youth, the silliness of media is old hat, an obvious fact… but the corruption of all established institutions is not being bought. Motherhood and fatherhood are still revered; schools are respected; governments are served if not blindly; and tolerance of the unusual does not equate with the demonization of the usual.

The movie, and its probable anachronistic feeling for Millennials, also helps me articulate something I’ve often observed on college campuses: Boomer professors booming (in their beards) about a Revolution that never ended … being met with incredulous smiles by a generation that wasn’t buying their discontent. The boomers are there with Dylan, but today’s younger generation is not there.

Cinematic COW

On a slow college cave day I’ll upload one of my cinematic sheep experiences. But right now I want to talk about the cinematic COW, that is, what the creative Community of the World says about what makes for a cinematic experience.

This is important, because Millennials combine a passion for movies with an allergy to hype. What that means in practical terms is that their perceptions of reality are actually molded by the most adept hype-creation machine in human history, Hollywood. Today’s young people, whom colleges are trying to court, want to be romanced by no one except the real McCoy, their own true love Wesley with eyes like the sea after a storm. But most of what they know of Wesley has been shaped, not on the farm or by the sea, but by watching Wesley at the theatre. So Wesley isn’t Wesley unless he’s lit well, shot well, edited well, and delivers a smashing Oscar-caliber performance.

Here’s a list of cinematic ingredients that (along with great storytelling and a compelling plot) create that cinematic experience … something that involves today’s young audience “in a different world”. These techniques are mentioned by Creative COW but elaborated by ORK:

  • Simple, natural, organic transitions (cuts like a blink, fades to black as though closing your eyes)
  • Dolly moves to move us closer, because we walk closer or lean in, our eyes don’t zoom
  • Pans to reveal breadth of scene, much the way our necks turn
  • Tilt ups to reveal scale dramatically, as in real life our heads tilt up
  • Shallow depth of field, because our eyes do not focus on an entire scene at once, and because the physics of 35mm photography create shallow depth of field and use it to move our attention around a screen
  • Long telephoto or medium telephoto shots, because cinema uses them to compress depth in a scene. Video/TV has always used wide angles primarily, and this is the convention of news-gathering, not storytelling. Also, mediumtele shots make people look more attractive, and tight closeups rivet attention on the eyes and facial expressions of a character
  • Light for the real world … 3D, with patches of light and dark, not flat “soap opera” video lighting
  • I also find that most of the time it’s best to break the famous rule about “keeping the sun behind the camera”. It’s best to keep the sun behind or beside the character, so that they are rim-lit and as three-dimensional as possible.
  • Stabilize the camera, using either a counterweighted rig (steadicam) or a tripod or jib arm. Avoid hand-held work enless the scene is kinetic and emotionally calls for it. Movie example of when hand-held is great: “I am Sam”. But most of the time, COW says, “Everyone has seen the MTV jerky-cam moves. They’re so 1995.”
  • Simplify moves, and let the action prescribe the movements. Don’t call attention to the camera by the choice of framing or moves.
  • Use frame rates to soften action, rather than make it too crispy

The “cinematic values” can be taken too far, of course. Idealize it, over-produce it, edit out the warts, and suddenly the high production values become a monument to the self-absorption of the institution, rather than a window into its life and values.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on why the personality of producers tends to get in the way of clear, useful communication on the part of colleges.

Making them weep

One of the goals I’ve always had in a fundraising video is to “make them weep”. An article in the Washington Post explores the reasons why the media is so effective at stimulating tears.

Desson Thomson compares the findings of two scientific studies that use movies to stimulate weeping. William Frey and Muriel Lanseth published their results in the 1980s, in a book entitled Crying, the Mystery of Tears. An article by Joe LaPointe in the New York Times July 9, 2003 quotes findings from Frey’s book as saying that men cry 1.4 times a month, while women cry 5.3 times a month. Frey found that crying releases internal toxins, and has a therapeutic effect.

Movies, of course, can make weeping a goal without apology. The purpose for attending a movie is to arouse an emotional response. In college communication, however, there is an integrity issue. We are speaking to an audience in order to present facts and invite their emotional involvement with us.

According to Frey and Lanseth, the reason for crying while watching a movie is empathy with the characters.

Tom Lutz, a sociologist quoted by Thomson, disagrees with the notion of a therapeutic benefit to crying. He says that the choke-up emotion arises when we are internally conflicted. Part of us is happy, part sad. The bittersweet conflict causes us to “strum a mental guitar chord that combines positive, major feelings with sadder, minor tones. And the tears flow before we know it.”

Mary Beth Oliver of Penn State says that tear-jerker media “cause us to contemplate what it is about human life that’s important and meaningful…. Tears aren’t just tears of sadness, they’re tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence.”

Blogger A. Hart quotes Hubert Humphrey (“A man without tears is a man without a heart.”) and Washington Irving:

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of… unspeakable love.”

My view is that both scientific viewpoints (empathy vs. internal emotional conflict) are saying the same thing. Empathy with characters is our own mind relating our story to the story we see presented before us. Research into the amygdala shows that emotional memory is largely a pattern-recognition process. When we see a pattern on screen that jives with a pattern in our own emotional memories, the tears begin to flow.

That’s why I believe it takes a little time to develop a connection with the characters on the screen, learn their story and relate to the significant forces in their lives. I often see news accounts or other videos that attempt to short-circuit this process. Often, they’ll cue the violins or introduce the slow-mo as a manipulative effect, in order to drag an emotional response out of viewers.

It’s far better to refrain from overtly emotional trappings until the scene itself, the story we are telling, is authentically told and fully actualized. Then the reality of what is being witnessed can touch those soul-chords without making the audience feel as though they’ve been manipulated.

No question, strong visual memories such as graduation, victory on the athletic field, hearing the alma mater etc. are what make alumni vulnerable to manipulation in this way… so I try to reserve these tools for genuine moments when the stars are aligned and the logical basis for agreement is already established … the case has been made, so to speak, and now sympathetic or empathetic emotion has become appropriate without violating the integrity of the college’s communication effort.